May 27, 2013

I made a MOOC and I survived!

Xavier Lagrange, Alexander Pelov and I made a MOOC introducing Cellular Networks!

It is supposed to be a 20-hours course for students having a minimum background on networks. It attracted around 350 students, including 35 students from my institution for which this course is part of the curriculum.

I do not discuss here our motivations to create a MOOC and the way students have experienced it. I focus on the teacher's standpoint when making this MOOC.

We decided to make our own MOOC from scratch without using external products (except YouTube to host video). In other words, we did not use third-party companies like Coursera and Udacity, which host content, advertise it, ensure hotline for technical troubles, and so on.

Time Spent
On a very rough estimation, we spent 240 hours on this MOOC, including:
  • 20 hours preparing the pedagogical material. This part is actually enjoyable for teachers. To transform classic 3 hours-long lectures into 7-minutes-long to-the-point videos (+ quizz) is actually a nice challenge. Though, there is room to do more: we did not change much our exercises. Moreover the only collaborative tool we experimented is peer reviewing for homework. In other words, the transition to c-MOOC would require more time.
  • x hours interacting with students. Since our MOOC was not that crowded, x was close to epsilon but I guess there should be some formulas linking teacher interaction time and number of students.
  • 30 hours installing and testing the MOOC platform. We chose OpenMOOC because it was the only available, viable, open-source platform at that time. It is an overall good basis but it is relatively hard to install for people who are not familiar with server administration. Moreover, statistics modules are very incomplete. But, still, OpenMOOC is OK, it provides basic functionalities and the teacher interface is friendly.
  • 180 hours generating the video of courses, including:
    • Warm-up: it is all but easy to write on a tablet while watching a camera, to master all recording elements, to feel comfortable, to find the right tone and the right pace. For each teacher, the first tries recording videos were disastrous.
    • Recording: we made a lot of errors, for example to speak during twenty minutes with microphones off. Even when everything runs perfectly, speaking for such video is totally different from lectures. Overall, 2 minutes of recorded videos ended up into 1 minute of video that can be actually exploited.
    • Producing: we discovered how to use a studio software. With nowadays tools, it took us in average 10 minutes to deal with each recorded minute, so 20 minutes per each finally online minutes of video. And we had around 90 videos with average 6 minutes. 
  • 5 hours advertising. We were not affiliated with a well-known platform, so we needed to attract people (despite the aridness of the topic). Clearly, we did not do enough.

The teacher should first decide how to cut a full course into units, each unit being four to ten chunks, each chunk being a 7-minutes long video. We opted for the format that has been popularized by Khan Academy. This format is now widely used all over the platforms: the background is (almost) empty, the teacher speaks in the background, we sometimes see his/her face, and the most important point is that he/she writes on the slide when he/she speaks.

Our process was to first create the target slides, i.e. what we want to have at the end of the video. Then, we only kept what is actually hard to draw in real time, for example a hexagonal ceiling. This is the background slide. The goal of the video is to start with the background slide, to write on it, and to finish with something that is close to the target slides. During the recording, the target slides were displayed behind the camera so that the teacher does not forget anything (and look at the camera).

We decided to not use a prompter because we wanted to keep it as natural as possible. We did not write  the discourse in advance, but Xavier and Alex master the topic so well that they did not need it. Note that it is also possible to pause during the recording so that teacher can take time to think to the next sentences. It is also possible to repeat something in a better way when the previous sentences were not totally satisfactorily. These pauses and repeated sentences can be cut afterwards.

To generate the first videos, we used software, cams and microphones that we found in our shelves. We were able to generate some videos but the overall quality was borderline. Then, we got some extra fundings and we were able to get professional materials and to build our own studio. The quality is far better. Our studio includes a tablet, a powerful Mac with enough hard-disk (we needed around 1 Terabytes for this MOOC only), some wireless microphones, and a semi-professionnal camera.

Stuff I Would Have Made In a Different Way
I put here miscellaneous thoughts:
  • We would have chosen a sexier title. In our case, it would have been appropriate to include a buzzword like LTE, LTE-advanced or femtocells in the title. We identified three ways to attract a large population of students: 
    • The MOOC is affiliated with a top-ranked university, which knows how to advertise, or with a highly-visible platform like Coursera. These websites attract millions of visitors, so any course can enroll thousands of students. It is possible that these enrolled people are less committed to complete the course though;
    • The MOOC is about a very trendy topic, say quantum computing, software-defined networks or any other buzzword. It has to be reminded that the majority of "MOOC students" are professionals who want to keep in touch with new topics they heard about;  
    • You make the buzz about your MOOC. We spent only 5 hours advertising and we are not professional. Press and web buzz campaigns is a way. It is also possible to convince fellows from other universities to make their students enroll your MOOC.
  • We would have found a better video format. Let's be honest: without a dedicated team, it is a indecently long and fastidious to create Khan Academy-like videos. We went too much when it was about videos. Compare this video and this other video. It took us 20 minutes to produce each minute of the former video while it took us only 4 minutes for the latter. Is it worthwhile? Based on our experience, it is probably possible to divide by at least 3 the overall time spent on video.
Overall, it was a great experience. We learned a lot about the potentials of such online courses and we had a lot of fun playing with videos. We developed a lot of nice ideas for the next MOOC, and we significantly improved the process of video recording and editing.

But it was also a huge investment. Xavier told me that making this MOOC was as demanding as writing a book. I often compare books with MOOCs when I have to explain our motivations to do MOOC. Both are knowledge, both are supposed to be done by experts, both target a wide population… it seems that both require very committed authors.